Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher, a stoic who believed in translating thought into practical action. When he became Emperor of Rome in the second century A.D. he wanted all of Rome to embrace philosophical ethics. Instead, Rome came under attack from many sides, and Emperor Aurelius was forced to give his full attention to making war on his enemies.
When the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives was founded 30 years ago (full disclosure: I was at the founding meeting, served as CCPA president from 1987 until 1999, and remain a CCPA research associate) by a group of academics (mostly from Carleton and McGill), and trade union intellectuals, the guiding principles of Canadian public policy (let alone socialism) were also under attack from many sides.
The main challenge came from Chicago school economics: the monetarism of Milton Friedman, and the “property fights as freedom” doctrine of Hayek. Even the mild “Keynesian” approach to fiscal policy was being abandoned by mainstream economists, as unemployment and inflation rose together.
Sky-high interest rates (the prime U.S. lending rate was 21.5 per cent in Dec.1980) crashed the world economy, creating the first “great” recession (1981-82) since the war. Instead of acting to challenge high interest rates and monetarism, the culprits for the downturn, the Trudeau Liberal government abandoned the unemployed, and ditched its own “just society” project. Even the NDP wanted Canadians to act to reduce increased budget deficits, which were only a symptom of the recession.
The doctrine that parliaments can legislate good — tepid social democracy — was under attack from a renewed Marxian left for good reason: capitalism was failing, and democracy had to mean more than governments engineering economic recovery that would benefit mainly big business.
Finding ways to resist monetarism and prepare for a better future was why the first CCPA executive director, Robert Clark, brought together unionists, academics, and social justice advocates from the churches to hear more about the highly publicized Jan. 1, 1983 statement by Canada’s Catholic bishops issued in response to a speech by Prime Minister Trudeau calling on Canadians to think anew. “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis” asked Canadians to act on what the bishops called “the moral disorder in our society revealed by unemployment.”
Two principles of Catholic social thought discussed in the document became important to the CCPA research agenda. In public policy “the preferential option for the poor” was given prominence. All policies needed to be evaluated by their impact on the poor and be gender sensitive; policies specifically designed to alleviate poverty needed to be part of government budgets.
“The priority of the needs of labour over the wants of capital” was another way of stating the economic principle that what was of value in society was created by the men, and women who did the work, not by the people who loaned money to the people who employed them. As the CCPA statement of purpose stated, “the economy is about people working together to meet each other’s needs.”
Last Thursday, the CCPA celebrated its 30th anniversary with a conference, followed by a dinner featuring actor Eric Peterson as MC, and messages from leaders of Canada’s opposition parties. In the morning session, over 250 people heard Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada itemize the groups and individuals silenced by the Harper government, and explain what it meant for democratic freedoms. The new executive director of the Atkinson Foundation (which provided start-up funding to rabble.ca nine years ago), Olivia Nuamah, a Toronto native recently returned from a distinguished career in Britain, talked about the need to start from the lived experience of Canadians when envisaging strategies of social transformation.
Aboriginal activist Kate Rexe of the Native Women’s Association of Canada shook up conventional left accounts about the benign role of the state and the church with her account of the Indian Act and residential schools. Her research into the 1876 Indian Act revealed horrific statements by members of parliament about how the act was supposed to work. By putting first nations on reserves, natives would be left with no alternative but to assimilate, or die, parliament was informed. The residential schools, run by the churches, destroyed the basic unit of aboriginal culture, the family, by separating children from their parents, and leaving them without access to the love and care only a family can provide. No one hearing Kate Rexe could be complacent about entrusting “the good” to government, or to the keepers of the social gospel.
The Canadian left may still be under continuous attack, but social activists need more of the “worldly philosophy” of Canadian political economists. Both fighting back and looking ahead means building an ever-better capacity for research and analysis. Social movements march on little else but the best assessment of what they are up against, and what can be done about it. That means perceptive thinking about the economy can be transformative.
Building an authentic society in which no one does without, and all participate as equals is not a abstract goal: it can come about through new social practices, helped along by innovative thinking. The CCPA will have a full agenda for its next 30 years.
Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.